India’s strategic partners

A system of Asian partnerships

India must pursue multiple relationships that can build on each other, as the region’s balance of power changes

Brahma Chellaney

Mint newspaper, January 13, 2010

Asia today is the pivot of global geopolitical change, but its myriad challenges are playing into international strategic challenges. With the world’s fastest growing economies, fastest rising military expenditures, most volatile hot spots and the fiercest resource competition, a resurgent Asia actually holds the key to the future global order.

The reordering of power under way in Asia is apparent from several developments: China’s increasing assertiveness, underscored by a new muscular confidence and penchant for regional brinkmanship; the new Japanese government’s demand for a more equal alliance with the US and its interest in creating an East Asian community extending up to India and Australia; the sharpening China-India rivalry that has led to renewed Himalayan frontier tensions, but which New Delhi has sought to publicly muffle by cutting off all information on the border situation since last September; and the constraints in the US’ Asia policy arising from a growing interdependence with Beijing, with the Barack Obama administration’s catchphrase “strategic reassurance” signalling a US intent to be more accommodative of China’s ambitions.

Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint

Such developments are a reminder of the need for like-minded countries to help underpin the power equilibrium in Asia by forming a web of bilateral or triangular strategic partnerships that feed into each other. After all, China’s own trajectory will depend on how its neighbours and other players such as the US manage its growing power. Such management—independently and in partnership—will determine if China stays on the positive side of the ledger, without its power sliding into authoritarian arrogance.

A multi-aligned India pursuing omnidirectional cooperation for mutual benefit with key countries is best positioned to advance its interests in a fluid Asia. Advancing strategic partnerships indeed was a key issue in the summit meetings of the past two months: with Australia on 12 November; the US on 24 November; Russia on 7 December; and with Japan on 29 December.

The Indo-Australian summit resulted in a decision to elevate the relationship to a formal strategic partnership, with a new security agreement being unveiled. A close India-Australia strategic relationship is a critical link in the larger Asia-Pacific picture, given the common security interests that bind the two democracies in several spheres.

To help underline the significance of their new accord, India and Australia have agreed to “policy coordination” on Asian affairs and long-term international issues, and to work together in initiatives such as the East Asia Summit and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Regional Forum. They are instituting regular defence policy talks, including consultations between their national security advisers, and setting up a joint working group on counterterrorism. They also have agreed to cooperate on maritime and aviation security and participate in military exercises and other service-to-service exchanges.

In New Delhi, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd contended disingenuously, though, that his refusal to sell India uranium is “not targeted at any individual country”—though India is the only country affected by his policy. Worse still, he proffered a specious justification—India’s non-membership in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). That treaty has no explicit or implicit injunction against civil nuclear cooperation with a non-signatory. Rather, it enjoins its parties to positively facilitate “the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy”, so long as safeguards are in place.

Any restriction is not in NPT but in the revised 1992 rules of the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group that, paradoxically, were changed with Australian support in 2008 to exempt India. So, Canberra is likely to come round eventually to selling India uranium.

The Indo-US summit, highlighted by the first state dinner of Obama’s presidency, received intense media attention—but yielded little, partly because the US-India strategic partnership already is on a firm footing. That partnership, founded on the June 2005 defence framework accord and the July 2005 civil nuclear deal, has resulted in growing cooperation in various spheres. However, differences in some areas persist, and New Delhi is dissatisfied with US counterterrorism assistance and its tacit neutrality on the Arunachal Pradesh border issue with China.

With little room for any dramatic breakthrough, the Indo-US summit received attention either for the wrong reason (the manner three persons managed to “crash” into the White House dinner), or for being light on substance but heavy on symbolism. The state dinner, clearly, was intended to pander to India’s collective ego, which had sensed a Sino-centric tilt to US policy ever since Obama became President. But the summit’s lack of tangible result left an unwelcome impression that, while China gets respect from the US and Pakistan gets billions of dollars in annual US assistance, India gets just a sumptuous dinner.

That impression needs to be dispelled through greater cooperation on common areas of interest. The apparent crisis facing the US-Japan alliance, with some in Washington seeking to play hardball with Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s government, has made further progress in the US-India partnership vital for Asian strategic stability and to hedge against the danger that a more-powerful China might turn aggressive.

The third recent summit centred on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Russia, which he had once called a “tried and tested friend” of India. Russia, with its vantage location in Eurasia and matching strategic concerns, is a natural ally of India. A robust relationship with Moscow will help New Delhi to leverage its ties with both Beijing and Washington.

In their summit declaration, Russia and India pledged to “raise their strategic partnership to the next level”. But this won’t be easy, given the three problems that plague that partnership. The first is that Indo-Russian trade, like the Indo-Japanese trade, is low, even as Sino-Russian, Sino-Indian and Sino-Japanese trade continues to gallop.

This, of course, shows that booming trade in today’s market-driven world does not necessarily connote political cosiness, and that close strategic bonds can go hand-in-hand with low trade levels. Still, the new target to boost Indo-Russian trade from $7.5 billion to $20 billion by 2015 is unlikely to be met, partly because of Russia’s own economic woes.

The second problem is the lopsided nature of the partnership, with military hardware sales and co-production constituting the dominant element. A robust partnership demands multifaceted collaboration and interdependence that can help underpin a mutual stake. The broadening of the Indo-Russian partnership also is being necessitated by India’s increasing purchases of US and Israeli arms. In 2008 alone, according to the Indian ambassador to the US, India placed orders worth a staggering $3.5 billion to buy American arms.

The third problem the partnership faces is that, for Russia, India principally is a client, even if a privileged one. A true strategic partnership has to break free from the patron-client framework—a challenge also confronting the US-India partnership. After all, the US values India more as a market for its goods and services than as a collaborator on pressing strategic issues.

As China’s immediate neighbours, India and Russia do share common concerns about that country’s rapidly accumulating power. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin famously described the Soviet collapse as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. But by eliminating a menacing empire and opening the way for Beijing to rapidly increase strategic space globally, that event left China as the biggest beneficiary. Furthermore, Russia’s decline in the 1990s became China’s gain. Today, the Sino-Russian dissonance may not be as eye-catching as the India-China rivalry. But the Sino-Russian honeymoon has given way to suspicion and competition.

The fourth summit at the year end was like a toast to the New Year, with India and Japan unveiling an “action plan” with specific measures to implement their 2008 security agreement. Hatoyama’s visit, intended to fulfil a 2006 bilateral commitment to hold an annual summit meeting, indicated that Japan will maintain its priority on closer engagement with India, despite the sea change in Japanese politics. Hatoyama’s election was even more historic than Obama’s because his Democratic Party of Japan ousted the Liberal Democratic Party that had held power almost without interruption for more than five decades.

India’s security relationship with Japan is one of the fastest growing, with the two countries holding an annual strategic dialogue between their foreign ministers, an annual defence ministerial meeting and other service-to-service dialogues. Now under their otherwise modest “action plan”, they have agreed to an annual senior-level 2+2 dialogue involving foreign and defence ministry officials together on both sides.

Economic ties also are taking off, with India overtaking China as the magnet for the largest Japanese foreign direct investment since 2008. The highlight of the Indian Prime Minister’s Tokyo visit this year could be the signing of a free trade agreement, if the remaining differences are sorted out in the ongoing negotiations.

The Indo-Japanese security agreement actually was modelled on the 2007 Australia-Japan defence accord. Now, the new India-Australia security accord mirrors the structure and large parts of the content of the Indo-Japanese and Australian-Japanese agreements. All three are in the form of a joint declaration on security cooperation and obligate their signatories to work together on security in Asia, while recognizing a common commitment to democracy, freedom, human rights and the rule of law.

These bilateral accords open the possibility of strategic triangles working in concert with each other—India-Japan-US, India-Australia-US, India-Japan-Australia and Australia-Japan-US. An India-Russia-Japan strategic triangle also can greatly contribute to Asian stability, but so long as Japanese-Russian ties remain hostage to history there is little hope of such a configuration. Last year’s Russia-Japan nuclear deal, though, offered a glimmer of hope.

The changing Asian balance of power underscores the imperative for India to forge closer strategic partnerships with varied countries to pursue a variety of interests in different settings and equations. A strategic partnership, however, cannot mean an exclusive relationship. The US, for example, is not allowing its new partnership with India or its long-standing alliance with Japan to come in the way of its growing strategic cooperation with China. Pragmatism in foreign policy demands multiple partnerships with interlocking interests, thereby guaranteeing mutual benefit and one’s own strategic autonomy.

Strategic partnerships are an aid, not a substitute to a nation discharging its primary duty to secure its frontiers and economic interests. Inadequate capabilities to deter an armed attack or an undue security dependency on a third party can easily negate the value of multiple strategic partnerships. Thus, to pre-empt aggression, a nation must have its own requisite strength and clout.

Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. Comments are welcome at

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